Don’t miss the ultimate foodie event, The Baltimore Sun's Secret Supper

August Wilson's plays shepherded by his collaborator Lloyd Richards

Sun Theater Critic

A small, round man with a graying goatee and a whisper-soft voice, LloydRichards has been called everything from "the theatrical Duke Ellington" to a"black Santa Claus."

He's also been described this way: "He's a big man but he don't act like abig man. . . . He can go anywhere and sit with his back to the door because heknows he ain't done nothing to no one. How many men can sit with their back tothe door?"

That description comes from a skit presented last year at a benefithonoring Richards' retirement after 12 years in the dual -- roles of dean ofthe Yale School of Drama and artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre.It was written by August Wilson, one of an impressive list of playwrightswhose careers have been shepherded by Richards over the past three decades.Other names with which the director is invariably linked include the lateLorraine Hansberry and the South African writer Athol Fugard.

Richards' relationship with Wilson, however, is special -- closer, moreformative, almost parental. Richards was not only the first to recognizeWilson's play writing ability a decade ago, but he has also directed theinitial productions of all of his plays, including the current quadruple Tony Award nominee, "Two Trains Running," and "The Piano Lesson" -- winner of the1990 Pulitzer Prize and the only Wilson play to have a post-Broadway tour. OnTuesday, "The Piano Lesson" begins a four-week run at the Mechanic Theatre,the final stop on its eight-month tour.

'The Piano Lesson'

Set in Pittsburgh in 1936, "The Piano Lesson" continues Wilson'sdecade-by-decade chronicle of the black experience in 20th century America.The play focuses on an heirloom piano, decorated with elaborate carvings thathark back to the days of slavery, and which becomes the subject of a heatedargument between a brother and sister about the proper function of a legacy.

It seems appropriate that this play about a legacy also says a lot aboutthe ongoing relationship between its director and playwright, as well as aboutRichards' approach to theater in general.

"The Piano Lesson" got its start in Waterford, Conn., in the summer of1986 as a staged reading at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center's NationalPlaywrights Conference, where Richards has served as artistic director since1968. The O'Neill -- was also the place where Richards first identifiedWilson's play-writing skills back in 1982 with a play set in a 1920s recordingstudio; the play, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," became Wilson's Broadway debut.

This doesn't mean there was an immediate spark between the two men,however. To the contrary, Wilson submitted scripts to the O'Neill for severalyears before "Ma Rainey" was accepted. Interviewed over the phone from hishome in New York, Richards admits he doesn't remember those earlier efforts,but he does remember the source of the problem. "[Wilson] was a poet. Hecouldn't write dialogue," the director recalls. But he continues -- and thefatherly feeling behind his words is unmistakable -- "He was persistent, and Irespect that."

When "Ma Rainey" crossed the older man's desk -- Richards refuses toreveal his exact age, but he is approximately a generation older than Wilson,who was born in 1945 -- the director felt an instant familiarity with thematerial. "The characters that he creates are people I know, people I've met.As a matter of fact, I used to go and listen to them as a young man," saysRichards, son of a Jamaican-born carpenter, who immigrated to Canada and thento Detroit, where the young Richards grew up.

"I used to go to the barbershop on Saturdays," Richards continues, "andlisten to the older men talk about sports and philosophy and politics. It waslike sitting at the feet of the elders, and August's characters were in thatbarbershop."

An artistic partnership

For his part, Wilson, reached at his home in Seattle, describes the key totheir artistic partnership this way: "He doesn't write for me and I don'tdirect for him." But then he gives an example that suggests a considerablydeeper level of trust and understanding. "When I sent Lloyd the draft of'Piano Lesson,' he called me up and he said, 'I think you have one too manyscenes in here.'. . . And sure enough, I find a scene I can do without, and Itake it out," the playwright explains. "To this day I don't know if we weretalking about the same scene. He wanted me to go through there and find itmyself. It's the way he works with actors, also -- letting them find what itis he wants them to find."

A similar example of trust characterized the search for an ending for "ThePiano Lesson." Three weeks into rehearsals, Richards told the cast andplaywright, " 'The Piano Lesson' does not have an end for this presentation. Iwill devise an end.' So I devised a finish for it, but we were conscious ofthe fact that we were in search of the real culmination of this work." Thesearch continued as "The Piano Lesson" was produced at theaters in a halfdozen cities -- with almost as many different endings -- before reachingBroadway in April 1990, with, at long last, the definitive ending.


This slow-cooking, production-sharing method of play development is aprocess Richards forged out of necessity when he was unable to find producerswilling to mount a Broadway production of Wilson's second play, "Fences,"which went on to win him the first of two Pulitzer Prizes.

Ironically, Richards faced almost the same problems at the start of hiscareer, when he directed the original 1959 Broadway production of LorraineHansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun," a production financed by, as he puts it,"lots of little people." "Raisin" gave Richards a national profile as thefirst black director of a Broadway drama, but at the time, he recalls, "Therehad not been a play on Broadway about black life . . . So 'smart' moneyavoided the play, and 'smart' producers avoided the play." Three decadeslater, when he was looking for backers for "Fences," he says, "the same peoplesaid the same things . . . So we had to find another route."

Wilson's next play

Wilson is currently working on a new play, "Moon Going Down," about bluesmusicians in the 1940s. The script won't have a staged reading at the O'Neillthis summer. The playwright submitted it, then decided it wasn't ready andwithdrew it. Nor rTC does it seem likely that "Moon Going Down" will debut atthe Yale Repertory Theatre, where all of Wilson's previous scripts premieredduring Richards' tenure as artistic director.

Though the venues may change, the collaboration between Wilson andRichards will undoubtedly continue. "I'm just not interested in working withanother director," Wilson says bluntly.

And, of course, these days Richards has more time than ever to devote toWilson. In his first full year away from Yale, the director has worked on onlytwo plays, both by Wilson -- the Broadway production of "Two Trains Running"and the touring production of "The Piano Lesson." That's not all he's been upto, however. He's also done some teaching at Princeton University; he recentlycompleted a six-year term on the National Council for the Arts; and he'scurrently deep in the process of selecting scripts for this summer's sessionat the O'Neill. In addition, he and his wife of 34 years have given up theirNew Haven residence and moved into their New York townhouse full-time. Hejokes that trying to combine two households into one was "the biggest job I'vedone in the last year."

Richards says he has had no contact with his Yale successor -- formerCenter Stage artistic director Stan Wojewodski Jr. "I have deliberately stayedaway," he explains. "I feel and believe that he, or anyone going into thatposition, needs the time and space to create his own school."

And for the first time in years, Lloyd Richards is savoring the chance todo what he wants to do when he wants to do it. "The difference in my life isthat now as I work, I can take that breath, take a moment, where for the past12 years, 30 questions would appear and demand an urgent answer. Now," hesays, with an audible sigh of relief, "I can select where my head goes next."

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad